Around the turn of the century, a German immigrant named John Foehrkolb set out daily from the fish stands down at Ma'sh Market armed with two buckets of oysters, a streetcar token and grit.
"My grandfather," Benny Mattes says, "he went door to door. He would put the two buckets on his arms and he'd take them on the streetcar and he'd go out to the better neighborhoods and dip out the oysters and sell 'em by the pint."
And he did so well his descendants have been in the seafood business ever since. John Foehrkolb, in fact, launched a kind of seafood dynasty when he started taking his oysters out to "the better neighborhoods" from the old market by Jones Falls at the harbor.
Benny Mattes is 74 and allegedly retired from the seafood business. He's the "Benny" of "Benny's Seafood Inc.," an East Baltimore institution for more than four decades on Eastern Avenue near Ponca.
His son, Andy, John Foehrkolb's grandson and a fourth generation fish dealer, and Andy's wife, Paula, pretty much run the business now.
But Benny shows up nearly every day, if only to shoot the breeze with buyers and sellers, with restaurant owners and supermarket tycoons, with crabbers and oystermen and turtlers, and with folks who just want a couple pounds of grouper for dinner, or a bushel of hard crabs.
Five branches of the Foehrkolb clan once simultaneously sold seafood from the old stalls in the much-lamented Wholesale Fish Market on Marketplace, now a defunct but not much mourned entertainment "complex." They were Benny's Seafood, Frank's Seafood, NAFCO Wholesale Fish, Louis Foehrkolb Inc. and E. Goodwin and Sons.
"We were all cousins," Benny says, "all related. John Foehrkolb, he was the one who started the whole business."
Benny was in the Wholesale Fish Market nearly 20 years.
"We were there the last day of the market," he says.
And Benny's is the only seafood house that stayed in the city after Wholesale Fish Market closed down in 1988.
Benny sits in the retail seafood shed behind the pine-paneled restaurant at 4923 Eastern Ave. His wife, Dorothy, is there, too, waiting to go down to Ocean City, and so are Andy and Paula.
And they're all talking about the family and the seafood business and Baltimore, which all seems to get mashed up together here in Benny's like a well-made crab cake.
Benny's mother was Catherine Mattes, whose maiden name was Foehrkolb. She and her sisters sold oysters by the pint from buckets, too.
"They'd go down to the shucking houses down on Boston Street to get them," Benny says.
Kate Mattes later ran a carryout seafood shop at Foster and Ellwood streets for years.
"She sold breaded oysters six for twenty cents and twelve for thirty-five, with crackers, slaw and pickles," Benny says. "That's when oysters were a dollar a gallon."
"His mother had the first legal beer license in Baltimore city," Dorothy says. "when the beer came back in 1933."
Dorothy was born in Chugwater, Wyo.
"Population 16," Benny says. "She wasn't so much for fish when I met her. I met her out in the cow country."
"I worked in Denver," Dorothy says. "He was drafted and came out there. We were both in the Army. You know how much I knew about seafood. He talked about crabs and I didn't know what he was talking about."
She became a technical sergeant with Omar Bradley's 12th Army Group, serving in England, France and Germany. Benny was limited to stateside duty. He only had sight in one eye. That's how he got his name, in fact. His given name is Andrew; he's named after his godfather, an uncle named Andrew Foehrkolb.
"But who the hell ever bought fish off an Andrew," Benny jokes. "They had a movie star when I was a kid named Ben Turpin who was 'cross-eyed.' I had a cross-eye, too, when I was a about five or six, so they called me Ben Turpin."
Ben stuck and eventually became Benny.
Benny married Dorothy in 1946 and they opened up a shop a couple doors down the street two years later. Seafood was pretty much in Benny's blood.
"We did wholesale and retail," Dorothy says. "We did catering in those days."
"Whatever it took to turn a buck," Benny says.
"She helped to run it for a long time," says Benny.
"She ran it," his son, Andy, joshes. "Let's get the facts straight."
"No," his mother says. "He did his half and I did my half."
"More like he did his three-quarters," Andy says. "And she did her three-quarters."
"I was the first guy to buy hard crabs on Hooper's Island to bring to Baltimore for the basket market," Benny says, "I'd like to have them crabs I paid a dollar a dozen for now.
He took the first steamed hard crabs to York, Pa. He put a basket out on consignment.
"If they sell them, OK; if they don't, throw them away," Benny says, "The next week they wanted two baskets. Now they sell more crabs in York than in any of those towns up there."
Benny's sells lots of crabs right here in East Baltimore, too. Mostly by the bushel, live and stemed.
"I don't want to go off the deep end," Andy says. "But I'd say Baltimore consumes 90 percent of the crabs on the East Coast.